If You Want to Have Consensual Sex at Events, You Should Be FOR Harassment Policies

I’ve been following the controversy around sexual harassment issues at skeptic and atheist conferences for the last couple of months now, in ever-increasing horror. How this came to be seen as a big deal to so many people on the anti-harassment policy side, I have no fucking idea, but I want to talk about one aspect of it I haven’t seen touched on much, just to put things in some perspective.

Whenever controversy around harassment happens, all the “What About The Men” characters seem to zero in on the idea that policies dealing with harassment will prevent anyone from having sex or even flirting. This is wrong. In fact, I suspect exactly the opposite is true: effective harassment policies enable people to be comfortable enough with whatever level of sexual interaction they are interested in (if any), from flirting to sex.

Sexual harassment policies are about preventing unwanted sexual advances. They are not about preventing wanted sexual advances. Thunderf00t’s story about biting a woman’s leg, for example? Completely irrelevant to the issue, because the woman herself expressed that it was entirely consensual. Sexual harassment policies come into play when a person feels something nonconsensual was happening, and reports it. Unless this woman felt a need to report the event in question, which she obviously didn’t, a harassment policy would’ve had no effect whatsoever. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

Again, sexual harassment policies are about preventing unwanted sexual advances. And here’s the thing: when unwanted sexual advances are a problem, it’s more likely that even wanted  sexual advances will be treated warily.

In a nutshell: the key to having an event where people open to sex are comfortable with sexual advances is having an event where there are policies in place to prevent inappropriate sexual advances (read: harassment policies).

Harassment policies, properly implemented, are only a threat to the sex lives of predators. That’s why they all talk about reporting “harassment”, not reporting “two people being all adorably flirty over there”.

Anyone who’s ever been to a BDSM event probably knows this incredibly well. You want an example of proof that harassment policies don’t ruin opportunities for fun and sex? Attend a BDSM event. Most of them, literally, have safewords that you can shout at any time for any reason and designated staff will come over to you and (if necessary forcibly) stop whatever is going on. No checking to see if it’s “really” inappropriate, no forms to fill out. Whatever you are doing, and whoever you are doing it with, it gets stopped. There is no harassment policy at any skeptic event that goes this far (which makes sense, given the context).

And yet, as you might imagine, sex happens all the time at these kink events. All kinds of sex. I’ve been to plenty of kink events where people have been literally (safely and consensually) set on fire. I’ve experienced it myself in fact. The harassment policies did not prevent that from happening, they enabled it. They made me and other people feel safe enough to allow it to happen.

I’ll say that again: the existence of policies dealing with harassment and safety made me comfortable enough that I was willing to let someone douse a part of my body in cool-burning alcohol and set it on fire.

You can think that makes me crazy or not, but the point is this: policies that deal with harassment and safety enable fun. They don’t stop it from happening. They help make it so people who want to have fun feel comfortable enough to have whatever type of it they want to have, whether it’s listening to speakers, socializing, having sex, or whatever else.

If you want to have sex at conferences, and you are arguing against having harassment policies, then you are either (a) working against yourself, or (b) a predator.

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5 comments on “If You Want to Have Consensual Sex at Events, You Should Be FOR Harassment Policies

  1. I don’t think it’s really possible at these sorts of events to outline specifically what types of advances are okay and not okay. The reality is that different people are comfortable with different things, so saying “X is okay, Y is not okay” is going to protect some people’s boundaries but not others. Some people at conferences don’t want to be flirted with at all under any circumstances, for example. That said, most of the policies I’ve seen tend to operate on the, “Stop if someone tells you to stop what you’re doing” principle, which I think is a pretty good metric. Even if someone is socially awkward, if someone tells them to stop doing something and they keep doing it, it’s not the social awkwardness that’s the problem.

    • Right, I agree that it’s very hard to codify what exactly is and isn’t allowed, and that even harassment guidelines that only offered negative rules would be easy enough to follow in the “you know that this at least is something that you shouldn’t do sense”. But as I read it, your argument in the original post was that harassment guidelines would also make it easier for people to safely make wanted sexual advances, and it’s not clear to me whether that argument carries once you have a ruleset that only has negative rules. At least the comparison to BDSM events seems lacking, since in those events there’s a much higher default expectation of people being open to advances, and therefore implicit positive rules. In a conference setting, there’s a much higher chance of people becoming unsure enough that they’ll decide not to make advances at all.

      Note that I’m not saying that “people being unsure enough that they’ll decide not to make advances at all” would necessarily be the worst possible outcome. I do favor the position that if one has to choose between risking harassment at conferences and discouraging even wanted advances at conferences, it’s better to discourage even the wanted advances, since there are other places for them. It’s only the “there should be harassment guidelines, AND they will serve to make people more open to making wanted advances” argument that I’m skeptical of – at least in a conference context.

      • I don’t necessarily think that having harassment policies will make it easier to make sexual advances. I definitely think that’s a likely possibility, but I don’t have sufficient confidence in that possibility to assert that it’s absolutely true. I do think that having harassment policies makes it less likely that someone who does make a sexual advance will be treated as an aggressor.

        Roughly, my logic goes like this: if harassment policies are in place, then harassment itself is less threatening (because there is a specific avenue for dealing with it provided), and, ideally, less common (assuming the policy is effective). Therefore, the environment itself is less threatening, and people will feel less of a need to be on guard, and harassment will be a more isolated incident, which makes a big difference in how people respond to advances. If you have fended off 10 assholes over the course of the day, then that 11th person, even if they seem nice, may look like just another potential asshole. If you haven’t had to fend off any hassles over the course of the day, then that 11th person becomes that first person, who seems like a nice guy, maybe we should get drinks later or something.

        I would be terrified of most wildlife in Australia, where it seems like pretty much everything wants to kill you, but find most wildlife where I live is incredibly adorable and friendly, and I kind of want to pet most of it. It’s not that there isn’t anything where I live that can kill me, it’s just that the odds are far better, and I feel a lot more correspondingly safe.

  2. I haven’t really observed the debates you reference, but I would note that in BDSM events, from the nature of the event people clearly know that *some* kinds of advances are appropriate, and the harassment guidelines outline the inappropriate ones. In that kind of a context, it is clear that the guidelines also protect the people making the advances: as long as they follow the letter and the spirit of the guidelines, they can know that they are not behaving inappropriately.

    In a general conference, however, you don’t have that context that implicitly establishes other kinds of advances as fine. If you only outline forbidden behaviors, but not allowed ones, you may leave (particularly socially awkward) people quite confused as to how exactly interpret the guidelines and how to know what does count as harassment. Constant uncertainty of whether you’ll be shouted at for breaking a rule does not make for an environment where people feel free to make advances. But if you do also provide guidelines on what is allowed flirting, then I would expect more people to see that these rules protect both the advance-maker and the targets of the advances.

    This is also part of the reason why I think the “you need explicit consent for sex” rule is so much better than just the “no means no” line, as it provides a positive rule rather than a negative one. Not only does that eliminate situations where people are raped due to being unable to say no, it also gives everyone a way of knowing when they are almost certainly in the clear.

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